David Mamet is not generally a madcap, although a certain menopausal giddiness seems to be guiding his pen of late. He has met his match in Nathan Lane, a well-known manic for all seasons, and, between the two of them, they put on a two-hour Oval Office-set rant mined with comic explosions that had the audience in a commendably constant state of uproar. Protracted applause at the end of the evening forced the cast of five back on stage for an extra bow on opening.
Mamet only recently revealed his funny side with the Off-Broadway antic, Romance. Now he is armed with deep-seated political rage, disguised as outrageous comedy, and Lane runs with this combustible combo like a star-quarterback on fire. Ordinarily, given Mamet's heavy-duty history, you would not expect them on common ground — but here they are, and the common ground is the White House, where Lane resides for the moment as Charles Smith, a profoundly unpopular Republican president on the eve of his non-reelection. He is trailing so far behind in the polls his staff might profitably form a search party. His Chief of Staff (Dylan Baker) spells it out for him: "People hate you."
It's not quite "Mr. Smith Goes to Wackoland," and it's not quite as funny as the current comedy playing the White House, but the notion of Lane as a Chief Executive on a rapidly sinking ship is a direct attack on the funnybone. And he brings out the jackhammer, spewing political incorrectness in all directions, alienating a powerful Native American figurehead (Michael Nichols), double-dealmaking with a turkey-industry spokesman (Ethan Phillips) and badgering golden prose out of his speech writer (Laurie Metcalf).
On stage, Lane was a tsunami of hilarity. Off stage, afterward at the opening-night party at Bond 45, he was subdued, soft-spoken and, to the chagrin of the press, parsimonious.
"I don't know what rage has to do with it," said the man who had made all the furious fun, "but I do think that Mamet and I are kindred sprits. We're both men of the theatre, and we love words. When I first read the script, I thought it was hilarious — a great role — and, yes, I wanted to be the first guy to say some of those things on stage."
Joe Mantello, who has directed both Mamet (the Tony-winning revival of Glengarry Glen Ross) and Lane (five times, from the Tony-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! to The Odd Couple), said it another way: "Nathan is a great musician, and Mamet is a great composer. That's a great collaboration, to have someone who plays music the way Nathan plays music and someone who writes music the way Mamet writes music."
Which makes Mantello, November's helmsman, something of a conductor. "It was a complete collaboration among all of us every day. Mamet was here for the first five days, then he went away and let us find our way through it, and then he came back right before the first preview and stayed with us a few days, went away and came back. We did some rewriting on the play. We changed where the intermission was. We used previews the way you use previews." [Mamet spent the opening in California, with severe bronchitis.]
Next for Mantello is 9 to 5. Dolly Parton has expanded her Oscar-nominated title tune into an entire score, and Patricia Resnick has written the book. Stephanie J. Bloch, Allison Janney and Megan Hilty have the roles Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Parton did in the 1980 film, and Marc Kudish has Dabney Coleman's role of their sexist boss. "We go into rehearsal in early July in New York," said Mantello, "and then we do it at the Ahmanson [in Los Angeles] August-September, September-October, somewhere along there."
Metcalf, in her second Broadway performance (her debut in My Thing of Love lasted 12 performances 12 years ago), had no problem explaining what lured her back. "What brought me to the play was working with Mamet and Joe Mantello and Nathan. I was so happy to work with those guys." And what did she learn about Nathan? "Nothing I didn't already know — his approach to the work and his generosity as an actor. I knew that about him from before, so I have been dying to share a stage with Nathan for a very long time."
Similar sentiments were echoed by Baker, who has shared a stage with Nathan before.
"I got to work with Nathan back in '86 in a little drawing room sort of comedy by Simon Gray, The Common Pursuit, and I didn't know what it would be like working with him again. I've been in the audience watching Nathan all these years, and I kinda wondered what the years have done to him. He is the most generous, most giving actor that you could ever wish for. He is absolutely the guy who wants to give other actors space. Plus, he's so much fun. Rehearsals right through till performance were a riot."
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